Coffee Break

This morning when I plugged in the coffee maker, it made a huge sparky flash and then a fire. Not a big fire, a small, 2-3” fire from the outlet (I thought). I pulled the plug, the fire was gone. I’m sure it was less than a couple of seconds between the spark and the end of the fire, but it seemed like a long time to me—one of those times where your brain shuts out everything else and 100% of your attention is focused on this flame that could burn down your entire house.

I wasn’t sure if it was the outlet or the appliance. I toyed with plugging something else into the faulty outlet, or trying the faulty coffee maker on a different outlet. And then I decided I needed to have some caffeine before conducting any kind of experiment that might involve fire (and a spouse with a fire extinguisher nearby might not be a bad add).

I looked in the fridge, hoping for a Coke, but no colas to be found. I settled for iced tea, and went to read the morning paper on the front porch.

Halfway through the front page, it occurred to me that I could boil water and pour it into the coffee filter myself. It was not quite as fast as pouring it into the reservoir, but it took less than 10 minutes, and I had fresh coffee to accompany the morning paper.

In the way that one does, as I was reading the paper, I was wondering if I should get a new coffee maker at a Kitchen Window kind of place or a Herberger’s kind of place. Then I remembered a friend who has several coffee makers (I found this out when I was helping her clean out her basement, and when I suggested she get rid of these excess coffee makers, she wanted to keep them for friends who might need said coffee makers). I texted her this morning to see if she still has this abundance, but have not heard back.

In the meantime, after a cup or two of coffee, I took a closer look at the coffee maker. Holy cow! (We actually do say this in the Midwest—at least some of us do.) The cord (rubber/plastic) was half severed. The miracle of caffeine. No need for an experiment or fire extinguishers, the culprit is the cord.

I love this little coffee maker. It’s the mini size you often get in hotels. It has no frills—no timer, no clock, no auto-off; it doesn’t even have an on/off button. And while it’s true, I do need to make sure I unplug the coffee machine before I leave the house, I don’t have to reset the time/programming every time the power goes out.

Also going on in my background is a Wendell Berry book that I recently finished, Our Only World. God bless Wendell Berry, reminding me that reducing consumption is a good thing.

I love this little coffee maker. It has a broken cord. I called a couple of nearby hardware stores and one of them said they would take a look. I brought it in today. They estimate it will cost $25 or so to fix the cord.

I know I can get a new coffee maker at Target for less than $25, with a clock, auto-off, and possibly an espresso feature. But I don’t need any of those things. I just want coffee in the morning.

And while I’m 99% sure that they’ll be able to fix the cord, the other 1% of me is not uncomfortable with spending 10 minutes in the morning making coffee.

What Can I Give You?

I had lunch with a friend the other day, and she brought me a gift bag—a couple of magazines and a few bottles and jars that she knew I would find useful in my herbal work.

We had a good long lunch, including a discussion of South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Haruki Murakami. We have a bit of a tradition of meeting and discussing a Murakami book at Pepito’s in Minneapolis in February.

Murakami stretches your mind. Or maybe it’s your imagination. Or maybe he prods the id. It leads to good and sometimes far-ranging discussion. If you like odd fiction, you might like Murakami (start with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). If you don’t like odd fiction, you might like Murakami (start with Norwegian Wood). Murakami is one of the few authors whose books I will read and reread. Always something new, something—huh?

We skirted around politics. Not that we have major differences, mind you. But rather because last time we got together we did get into politics, and it felt like we were swallowed by a whirlpool and two hours later spit out the other side. Not that we disagreed or argued, but almost like a two-hour vent. Or even a two-hour rage. We were both disquieted by that.

Our get-togethers are usually very happy making, with talk of books and food, writing and friends and family, and possible personal concerns we might want a bit of help working through. Usually I go home all relaxed and happy and feeling like my soul has been nourished (corny but true, so there). But not after the politics for two hours. Even agreeing, it drained us. So we have put a moratorium on talking about politics. (Although since we make the rules, we can make exceptions if we think it’s important.)

As the conversation moved into other areas, my friend mentioned her upcoming Lenten project (she does a Lent thing every year; I kind of like the idea, but I’ve not yet done it myself). Okay, I’m just going to very pridefully say that she told me that I inspired her Lenten project.

Specifically, she said the occasional things I send her in the mail (I love using snail mail; I visit the post box several times a week) are a special moment in her day (personal mail being relatively rare these days). So she’s decided to send a card to someone on each day of Lent. A friend, a relative, a mentor, someone she admires.

Can we focus on this most excellent idea for a moment? Okay, I am not of the Lenten variety, but don’t most people typically give something up for Lent? And I guess my friend is doing that, in that she is giving up a bit of time in writing the notes. But more importantly, at least to my wee mind, it’s like she’s turning the idea of Lent inside out. Instead of taking away, she’s giving.

I love it when my friends humble me.

She mentioned that she probably needed to get cards for her project, and being rather Lent uninformed, I asked when (soon) and how long (40 days). I knew I had a few cards I could give her and I passed them on after our long lunch.

But later in the evening as I was reading, it niggled. I have so many cards. I have a huge variety of cards (lots that I receive free in the mail from charities, but also just a lot of cards accumulated over the years). And then I remembered a gift that a different friend had sent me a couple of years ago, when I was rather early into my postcard project. She sent me a package of 50 unique postcards. I was awash in delight—so many new possibilities for matching message to postcard.

So I went through the card drawer and pulled together a package of cards. A wide variety that I hope will cross a variety of folk. And I remembered the gift economy—giving what you have when you can. You want, I have, I give.

I have so much more of so many things than I need. Sometimes I latch onto things simply because they could be useful some day. In the gift economy, if my friend needs cards and I have cards, I give her some of mine. Maybe she’ll like them, maybe not (I ask her to return the cards she doesn’t use) but she doesn’t have to go out shopping, and I’ve gotten rid of a bit of my surplus of cards.

But the gift economy is more than that. When I was at my best with it, every time I got together with someone, I tried to bring them a gift. Something small usually—a jar of ginger jam, a magazine, or some rhubarb. A poem. An article from the newspaper. It’s a way of saying, I value you. I think about you. It’s nice to give people things—sharing what you have, or just thinking, what might they want or appreciate that I happen to have?

It feels good. I have a couple of friends who do this occasionally, and I always feel very special. I feel lucky, and blessed. And when I give something to someone, I always feel happy and a little bit lightened.

Note: The gift doesn’t have to be something physical, it could be a service, or a favor. The most common around here is shoveling walks. Minimally one tries to do at least a few inches over the border of the neighbor’s walk, but copying my neighbor across the street, last year I started shoveling both my neighbors’ sidewalk up to their personal walk (about half the full sidewalk). This year, someone shoveled our front walk three times. That has never happened before.

The gift economy: I swear, it’s contagious.

The Things We Do

After the election, I decided to focus more on things here on the home front—at the neighborhood and city as well as the state level. It started with volunteering to “adopt” a storm drain. There were six at the intersection half a block north of our house, and we could pick whichever one we wanted. But it was just too hard to choose, so we adopted all six. This winter with the frequent thaws, we’ve been out there chopping out the snow and ice so the water can drain. You might be surprised at how difficult it can be to find a storm drain in the winter. And when you find one, you’d think the one across the street would be right across the street, right? Well, no.

But it’s always rewarding—good exercise and a sense of doing something in the community. And sometimes people stop and thank us. The bus drivers almost always wave. That feels good too. We’ve also started shoveling out both ends of our alley (where the snow always seems to accrue). We reap a very direct advantage from this, so it is not exactly a civic deed. Nonetheless, one day when we were clearing out the snow, a guy stopped his truck and asked if he could spell one of us for a while—he just wanted to help out. Maybe we will even get to meet more of our neighbors!

The other thing we’ve done right here in our neighborhood is volunteer for our small urban orchard. It is just starting out (no fruit until next year) but we will help to water and mulch and other sundry tasks as assigned. After the trees start to bear, we will also help with harvest and gleaning. It is quite an exciting project—a variety of fruit trees, including apple, crabapple, plum, pear, peach, and cherry. I wonder what a Minnesota peach will taste like?

There are a few town hall meetings coming up—two of them held/sponsored by my state senator and representative. There is also a town hall meeting in February on the minimum wage of $15 for the city of Minneapolis. I absolutely want a higher minimum wage, but I don’t know that $15 and just for the city of Minneapolis is the way to go. Geographically speaking, Minneapolis is a relatively small part of the 7-county metro area. And with a population of approximately 394,000, we are also a relatively small portion (approximately 13.5%) of the population. I need to learn more.

I have stuck to my New Year’s resolution to send a postcard a week to our new Senate majority leader. I have already heard back from him—not wordy responses but acknowledging my concerns (in this case, responding to two separate postcards, one about infrastructure and the other about healthcare). I did not actually expect him to respond to my postcards. I don’t think I’ll tell him that. I’ve also written about funding the University of Minnesota; a potential crackdown on protesters—potentially making it a felony with some serious financial implications; a suggestion that the state NOT invest in developing a from-scratch computer program to distribute health insurance premium rebates (as that has not worked so well in the past—the build from scratch part); and the definition and use of the word “exponential” (sorry, but it’s numbers AND words, an intersection I can’t ignore).

The acknowledgment has further spurred me, and I have chosen to believe that he actually appreciates these postcards. I know this is a glass half-full to overflowing viewpoint, but why not? I am always respectful and try to send interesting postcards (and a nice variety—I have scads that I’ve collected for the haiku project).

Anyway, I should have made the resolution to send AT LEAST one postcard a week, because I have already sent 10! They are addressing so many things in the Legislature (as well they should, leaving so many things undone last year) that I feel I can’t wait a week on some things. I sent three postcards on healthcare, and the legislation is now signed and done. It is a decent piece of legislation, and both sides compromised. The Republicans put some interesting things on the table that I want to learn more about: a farmers health insurance co-op, and a reinsurance program. Since I am one of the 5% that purchases my health insurance independently on the market, I watch this issue very carefully.

Not long ago I got together with a friend for lunch. We were talking about things we were doing since the election. She has doubled her volunteer commitment at a local nonprofit, working a shift two days a week instead of one. She’s made phone calls to national House and Senate leaders (and our reps as well) on various issues. She participated in the women’s march in St. Paul.

It wasn’t a tallying, it wasn’t a comparison, and often it wasn’t even the focus of the discussion. But as we moved on to the second beer, I realized that even just between the two of us, we are doing quite a lot! Lots of contact with government representatives (she more national, I more local), local involvement, even drinking local beer. Yes, I know. Civic to the bone.

A few days later, after reading the newspaper I was a bit despondent. I went online and signed two petitions (one sponsored by a Minnesota senator, one by moveon.org) and sent a congratulatory postcard to the Senate leader for the healthcare legislation which was actually quite a good compromise. But it felt so little.

And then I remembered the lunch with my friend, and when it all added up, it had seemed like a lot. And I thought it might be inspiring to track that for two or four years. So I emailed my friend and another good friend of ours with this idea: Report in on what you’re doing. It will give each of us other ideas, as we have different approaches and different areas of priority. Even if each of us did one thing a week, at the end of a year, that would be more than 150 actions. It’s not meant to be competitive, but I do hope it challenges us. And I know it will encourage us, just having this list of ongoing things that we’re doing, small and large: a postcard sent, a phone-call to a senator, attending a town hall meeting, a petition, an email, a volunteer gig, a letter to the editor, a march, a poem.

This is not a partisan thing. Everyone can do something to make community stronger, to make their voice heard, to make sure everyone’s voices are heard. Start where you’re comfortable. Maybe make a pact with a friend, keep a list. Do one thing this month, this year, tomorrow.

These are the things we do.

When it comes down to it, perhaps they’re the only things that matter.

In Praise of the Handkerchief

My spouse is a handkerchief person. I thought this was quaint when we met. I have since experienced the practicality of the practice (particularly in movie theaters when I have forgotten tissue).

Not long ago when we were visiting my mom, I asked her if she had any of dad’s old hankies left. I thought perhaps I could replenish the spousal supply, and plus I’ve always loved a big hankie for myself when I have a really bad cold, most especially an old and very soft hankie. She did indeed have a supply and shared some, and then asked if I wanted any of hers. Compared to my dad’s, they were so small, so dainty. I couldn’t imagine honking into one of those things. It would feel like desecration or something.

But the next time we’re visiting my mom, I have a little sneezing attack and I’m going through tissue after tissue. I remember the hankies and ask Mom if I can have one of her handkerchiefs after all. I grabbed a small soft one mostly at random, and it was perfect for my slightly runny sneezy nose. To my surprise the next day, it looked and felt perfectly soft and clean. So I used it for another day. I had thought handkerchiefs would get icky right away, like tissues do. I was finding out different.

The next time we went to see my mom, I asked if I could have a few more. She said sure, and this time we took them out and I looked at them more closely. She must have at least 50 handkerchiefs. Beautiful, so many of them. Most were white, but not all. Some had embroidery around the edges. Some had some very serious needlework (I know nothing about needlework so I don’t know what kind, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if at least some of them weren’t stitched by people she knew). I took several (I believe she allowed me six). I was thrilled, and she was kind of thrilled that I was into her hankies.

Once I had several, I used them a lot more. One in the purse and another in a pocket. I found (not surprisingly) that I was decreasing my use of tissues. (I wish I had thought to measure it before and after, but ah well.) I mentioned this to a friend and she was a little intrigued, and I asked her if she wanted one of my mom’s handkerchiefs, just to see if it was something that might appeal (we are both into reducing waste), and she said yes.

When I relayed this to my mother, she said, “Oh! Well then you’ll have to get more next time you come up!” And this time we went through them more slowly, and I took many. Mostly white, mostly soft. But almost none plain white. A border, a pattern, some lace. Lots of flowers. But there were a few that were not white: purple, black, brown, bright red, turquoise. I’m forgetting some. It felt like a small array of history spread out on her bed. It was so fun.

What a thing we have lost: the art, beauty, and utility of the handkerchief.

It turns out my friend did indeed enjoy the handkerchief. With my new bounty, I asked if she might like a couple more. Absolutely, she said. (I’m almost positive that was Not her exact word. But it was a strong affirmative.)

Since we had that conversation (several weeks ago), my use of the handkerchief has evolved further still. I have had a beautiful purple hankie (with splashes of white flowers and green leaves) on the front porch table these last two days. It has mopped up tears (All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr), the occasional sneeze, and the drips off glasses of iced tea. Also good for drying one’s brow on a humid day.

This is a part of my mother’s history that I cherish. Much like a paper clip, you can find endless uses for the handkerchief. Since I’m quite the neophyte, I know I’ve only scratched the surface.

Icked out about the reuse factor? The snotty handrag?

My handkerchief rule is this: Use it as long as it feels (and looks) soft and clean. As soon as it doesn’t feel soft and clean, replace. (If it’s a major cold, this could be several times a day.) I find I tend to go through 3-4 hankies a week. They take up practically zero space in the laundry, and then you’re set for another week.

I think I’m moving towards reducing tissue use by about 50%. That’s not a bad start.

Perhaps it’s time for a handkerchief revolution. They are practical, sustainable, and extremely versatile.

And often, quite beautiful.

Caucusing

I went to my precinct caucus last night—it was a lot of fun. (Mostly.) In Minnesota, both parties bucked the national trend: Democrats’ choice for president was Sanders (62% vs. 38% for Clinton) while the Republicans’ candidate of choice was Rubio (37%) over Trump (21%). I kind of like that we march to a different drum.

I was at the Democratic caucus. It was held at a nearby high school and each precinct met in a different room. Most people (including us) didn’t know our precinct number so that caused a bit of a jam at the door. Once we got inside, we found our room and took a seat. There were 32 desks and it looked to be maybe a third-grade classroom. We arrived about 15 minutes early and there were plenty of desks available. We were suprised by how uncrowded it was. All we had to do was wait.

It turned out 275 people showed up for our precinct. The first thing you do (after signing in) is vote for your presidential candidate of choice. A lot of people left right after voting, but a good number of us stayed around for the resolution portion and it was standing room only. I was glad we got there early!

I have been to caucuses where the resolutions go on and on (and sometimes verge on the silly) but the ones presented last night were pretty good, and many of them passed unanimously or nearly so: restore voting rights to felons once they’re released from prison; remove the Social Security tax ceiling; support urban agriculture; mandatory GMO labeling; reduce the use of toxic chemicals in our parks; a six-point plan to help struggling pollinator species; invest some of our environmental dollars to buy land preserving wild rice habitat; invest in policies and strategies to reduce homelessness; divest the state pension fund from investments in fossil fuels; and require all Democratic candidates to sign a pledge saying they will not accept campaign contributions from Monsanto (I personally would have added Syngenta and Cargill, but singling out Monsanto is not such a bad idea since they are so very keen on their neonicotinoids).

A not-quite contentious discussion arose around a resolution to increase funding for treatment of ash trees (we’re having emerald ash borer problems here). An amendment to not use systemic insecticides (which make the entire tree poisonous to critters that eat, live in, land on, or otherwise use ash trees) was introduced. I learned quite a bit about ash trees and their future, and also systemic insecticides. Eventually the insecticide amendment was added and the resolution passed.

The only resolution that I can remember not passing was for legalizing marijuana for recreational use and allowing people to grow their own. I am heartily in favor of this, as marijuana has great medicinal properties as an herb. A lot of people in the room were in favor of legalizing pot, but the rub was the method: an amendment to our state constitution. I asked if there wasn’t a better route (I hate amending the constitution willy nilly, and a few others had a similar concern). I think I voted for it, even with the constitutional amendment aspect, but I was a little relieved when it didn’t pass (it was close though).

We wrapped up a little after 9:00. It was a good way to spend an evening: I learned a lot, met some of my near neighbors, and got to see which issues we are pretty unanimous about and which are a little more contested. I forget how invigorating it can be to hear different viewpoints and sides. I signed up to be an alternate delegate (I did this once before, and it was a little bit scary and a little bit fun). We’ll see where it goes this time. I’m good with scary but fun.

 

The Mighty Middle

I just got back from a three-hour breakfast with a friend from graduate school. She’s lived out of state for most of her working life but we’ve stayed in touch, mostly through Christmas cards. A few years ago, though, the friendship deepened and we’ve been writing frequently (it’s so fun to get real mail) and seeing each other on the occasions she comes back to Minnesota to visit family.

She’s one of the smartest people I know, and I never tire of talking with her. We have much in common (as well as many differences) and range all over the conversational landscape (in three hours we didn’t even get around to books!). Towards the end of this marathon breakfast we discovered a shared passion that surprised both of us: We want to bridge the partisan political divide.

It sounds so dry, doesn’t it? Hardly a passion.

It seems the parties work so hard to convince us how different they are, and thus how different we elephants and donkeys are. Government has become frightfully partisan, to the point where it has shut down more than once and shut-down threats have become the currency of the day. These are the people we have hired to run our government. Compromise is considered treason.  A lot of people on the left and the right are increasingly frustrated with this dysfunction.

On the other hand, according to numerous polls, Democrats and Republicans as people (as opposed to elected officials) agree on quite a large number of things, though you would hardly know it from reading the newspaper or talking to your friends. I have friends who demonize Republicans as evil incarnate. I’m serious. I used to stay silent, but the last time one friend pinned all the economic woes of this country on Ronald Reagan, I reminded her that it was Bill Clinton who signed the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which contributed greatly to the 2007 meltdown.

A scad of polls has found large majorities of the population favor labeling of genetically modified foods. An Associated Press poll reported in January 2015 that 64% of Republicans and 71% of Democrats support GMO labeling. That’s a lot of agreement.

Gun control is usually considered a very partisan issue, and in ways it is, in that Republicans are more likely to oppose stricter gun laws (79%) and Democrats are more likely to support them (77%). On the surface that seems pretty cut and dried, but if you go just a tiny bit below the surface you find that 87% of Republicans and 95% of Democrats would support a law requiring background checks on people buying guns at gun shows or online. Maybe not so polar after all. (Quinnipiac University, December 2015)

Even abortion is not as polarized as it is positioned in the political arena. Yes, Democrats generally defend and Republicans generally oppose it, but let’s face it: Nobody really likes abortion. Both Democrats and Republicans agree that fewer abortions is better and perhaps they would agree that none is ideal but not realisitc. I do know that even my most radical liberal friend who demonizes Republicans (“Can you tell them by the way they walk?”) is opposed to abortion as birth control. And nearly every Republican I know is in favor of the option for abortion in cases of rape or incest. Again, we enter shades of gray.

Economic reform is another issue on which huge numbers of Democratic and Republican people (if not politicians) agree. Big money controlling politics is a huge concern for the vast majority of the people, in stark contrast to elected officials who—of course—embrace big money because that’s how they get elected. More than three-quarters (80%) of Republicans and 90% of Democrats believe money has too much influence in political campaigns. (NYTimes/CBS News poll)

There is also huge bipartisan support for overturning the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United. A Bloomberg poll in September 2015 found 80% of Republicans and 83% of Democrats opposing the Citizens United Ruling.

You still think we have nothing in common?

I’m just scratching the surface here.

In Winter’s Kitchen

I picked up In Winter’s Kitchen: Growing Roots and Breaking Bread in the Northern Heartland by Beth Dooley when I saw it at Subtext bookstore in November, because I love books about food and I figured it would be a good December read. And also because it’s set in Minnesota. I expected a good memoir, engaging, mentioning places I count familiar. But I was not really expecting to learn anything new. Oh hubris, thy name is Peterson.

In the very first chapter, about apples, I learned a good bit about my own very local University of Minnesota, home to the oldest and largest apple breeding program in the United States. I knew it was a good program (they did, after all, bring us the Haralson and the Honeycrisp) but I didn’t realize they were such a big player in the game. And maybe not such a fair one.

In 2008, when the apple-breeding budget was cut by two-thirds, they moved to a patented-licensing arrangement wherein interested growers are required to apply for permission to grow the new U of M varieties and, if accepted, follow strict guidelines for growing and selling. Seems a bit Big Brother to me (especially the selling), but let’s ride with it for a moment.

The U of M also patented SweeTango (they had a contest here to name the new apple; I submitted but they didn’t pick SnowSweet) and Zestar! (which I didn’t even realize was a Minnesota apple before this book). This new program resulted in limiting apples available for wholesale (i.e., at grocery stores) to 45 growers, mostly in Washington, Michigan, and Nova Scotia. Only one Minnesota grower was allowed (that would be Pepin Heights). One!

A lot of Minnesota apple growers were less than happy with this situation. And I can testify that a number of alumni (ahem) and Minnesota citizens in general are not so pleased about this. These apples were created with my taxes. I am actually quite proud of that (particulary the Haralson, which is my north star of apples). I am one of those people who believe in paying taxes, and I love what I get for all my taxes (though of course one always has one’s quibbles—one of mine these days is that more of my tax dollars seem to be going for athletics than for infrastructure and we have some really old bridges here). And I love the University of Minnesota’s apple breeding program. But giving the licenses so far abroad—why?

According to Dooley, local apple growers were finding the University of Minnesota their largest competitor for sales, as the large licensed growers sent their fruit back to Minnesota—labeled local even if they were from Michigan—and undersold the local growers.

I would rather have my tax dollars help local growers. The University of Minnesota could have poured the glory of the SweeTango into the state of Minnesota. It could have been the Colorado peach of apples. Instead, more are grown outside Minnesota than in. Lesson: go to an orchard or look for local local apples.

Hoping to be back more regularly as the technology problems dissipate.